In all the languages I am familiar with (mostly English and my native German as well as some rudimentary Italian and French, so all somewhat related.), the tense of a verb only indicates the time of an action comparatively with another or the present (that is at most in the form of before, after or at the same time). For example a perfect form is used to indicate that something happened before the current time, a pluperfect to indicate that something happened before another past event, and so on.

I was wondering if this is the only possibility, or if there are languages where the tense also depends on something like elapsed time. So as an example, are there languages for which the following sentences would use a different tense?

  • "I did X this morning."
  • "I did X last week."
  • "I did X ten years ago."

I assume that there are languages which might use the present tense for events in the near future or past, but I am specifically interested if there are languages with different past or future tenses in such a situation.

  • Yes, many languages have more than two tenses. I've heard it referred to as "metrical tense", though Google doesn't bring up a lot when you search for that.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 11:32
  • 1
    Periphrastically: "I just did X; I'm about to do X" or French "Je viens de faire X ; je suis sur le point de faire X" express past and future immediacy. :) Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 14:37
  • In practical use, Italian is like that. Most northern Italians chuckle when people from the south use passato remoto (lit. "remote past") to tell you what they did last week, while people from the north almost always use passato prossimo (lit. "near past") even when they talk about years ago and then should use the remote tense. Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 20:46

1 Answer 1


Having one or more remoteness distinctions in the past tense is reasonably common, particularly in Papua, parts of the Amazon and parts of Africa: http://wals.info/feature/66A (note that the map is quite sparse with data points). I'll give examples mostly from Papuan languages as I'm more familiar with those than the other areas. See e.g. The Papuan Languages of New Guinea by William A. Foley for examples and further sources on specific languages.

A common distinction is earlier today ("hodiernal") vs. before today. WALS says that if there is one well-defined cutoff point (rather than say, just two different past tenses that are used contrastively, and where the exact difference between the two depends on context) then it's almost always that, but I know of at least one example where this isn't the case, Marind (Marind(TNG), PNG), which distinguishes past through yesterday from events before yesterday.

The before today category is often divided further, e.g. into yesterday ("hesternal") vs. before yesterday. Enga (Engan(TNG), PNG) is an example of a language with such a system. Some languages have even more distinctions. Yimas (Ramu-Lower Sepik, PNG) distinguishes ealier today, yesterday, roughly 2-5 days ago and before roughly 5 days ago, and may additionally sometimes use the irrealis mood for legendary or highly remote past. Yagua (Peba-Yaguan, Peru) has five clearly grammaticalised tenses: a few hours ago, a day ago, roughly one week to one month ago, roughly one to two months up to one or two years ago and further distant or legendary.

Distance contrasts in future are also possible, though to my knowledge much less common, an example is Dani (West-TNG, Indonesia) which has two optional tense markers in the likely status, which distinguish a relatively near future from a far-flung future.

In addition to these absolute tenses, the relative tenses common on Papuan "medial verbs" may also show multiple distinctions. A simple simultaneous/sequential distinction is very common, but some languages, e.g. Naasioi (South Bougainville, PNG) further divide the sequential category into immediate sequential and delayed sequential, and a couple of languages, e.g. Telefol (Ok (TNG), PNG) further divide the delayed sequential into later and much later.

  • Thank you for that interesting answer. I kind of would have guessed that a cutoff point would be earlier today vs. yesterday, as this can be done without timekeeping. However I never would have guessed that there is a language with as many as five possible intervals. Considering that I tend to forget whether I did something two weeks or two months ago, it makes you wonder if native speakers are better at remembering...
    – mlk
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 13:01

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